The Two Faces of the Symbol of Medicine



Credit: Symbol Sage

Have you paused to wonder why humans attach so much fear to the existence of snakes? If you were quick there to think “Duh, it is because they are life-threatening”, it can be argued that that thought was born out of that same phobia. If you care to know, most snakes will however avoid humans unless provoked but this hasn’t made us fear them less. Most humans will scamper at the sight of anything similar to a snake-like figure whether they are venomous or not. It also doesn’t matter if they are dead or not, some fright will likely grip you before your senses adjust to the fact that it is a dead snake. 

A research has gone on to say this fear could be evolutionary, that is, something that has been hardwired into our survival instincts after conducting a study on babies where it was observed they reacted to pictures of snakes in a way that suggested apprehension. Another study, on the other hand, has argued that we learn them as we grow. Perhaps this is especially true for people raised in the Christian faith as biblical records from the book of Genesis portrayed the snake as the vessel through which the devil was able to deceive humans. Interestingly, it was the same snake Moses raised in the desert to ease the affliction of Israelites. People are also quick to ascribe this to the origin of the rod and the snake seen in the logo of various medical outfits. But is this the complete story? How about a variant of this medical symbol that bears wings in addition to the rod and the snake? Do they mean the same thing? 

In the Beginning Was Just a Rod and a Snake 

Going by historical account, the authentic symbol of medicine is the rod of Asclepius, the Greek deity of healing and medication. It is made of a single snake coiled around a rod. There are accounts of temples built in honor of this god where a certain specie of nonvenomous snakes called Asclepius snake is used in the healing process. In fact, Hippocrates, the famed father of medicine is said to have started his training in one of such temples. 

If you examine the logos of the College of Medicine, University of Ibadan; Royal Society of Medicine (UK); Kenya Medical Training College as well as the World Health Organization, this symbol is what you will see. 

How the Impostor Sneaked in

The other symbol which has been attributed to medicine is called the Caduceus. It is made of two snakes coiled around a rod with wings on both sides. According to Greek mythology, this symbol represents Hermes, the messenger of the gods. 

Hermes is also associated with eloquence, writing, and trading. These attributes are what triggered the wrong attribution of Caduceus to medicine. Being in the business of printing which can be considered an extension of writing, a publisher started adding the Caduceus to Medical texts they produce. Looking at the similarity with Asclepius, this caused confusion and a number of controversies. 

The controversy was further heightened when the US Army Medical Corp adopted the Caduceus as their insignia. This resulted out of a misunderstanding of symbology and at the insistence of a single individual who probably has a thing for more snakes. Further adoption by the Marine Hospital Service which later became the US Public Health Service also contributed to the proliferation of Caduceus as a symbol associated with medicine. Some individuals have however frowned at the continuous usage. One of such is Hermes, being the god that can also be on the side of gamblers, thieves and liars shouldn’t be associated with a noble profession like medicine. 


Nigerian Graphics Designers Putting the Nails on the coffin 

In the Nigerian sphere, except for medical outfits that are well-grounded, others that are relatively new are more likely to pick the Caduceus over the Asclepius. The reason largely being the visual appeal the former has. Admittedly, there is an endearing aura with the symmetry of the Caduceus and its imposing wings. This aesthetic appeal has also been cited to be the reason for the wide adoption in the US. 


Additionally, most graphic designers use Google to source for the elements they use in their design and the results usually provided by Google are mostly Caduceus. An unsuspecting designer with no background in Greek symbolism will simply pick one of these, slap it on a design, and from there the epidemic of misappropriation spreads. 


Does it Matter? 

Symbols are more than lines and curves. In them lies the identity and history of the entity they represent. What does it say of us to the coming generation that we are incapable of correcting an error which will only take a Wikipedia search to notice? 

If it doesn’t matter, looking at the shared history Hippocrates has with Asclepius, the statue of Hippocrates could as well be replaced with the statue of Santa Claus. 

If you will appeal to the argument that believes symbolism is a social construct, at least now you know the difference between the two symbols if you didn’t. 

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